Frank Fat’s: An iconic eatery celebrates its 70th birthday

It’s not often that a restaurant celebrates its 70th anniversary. It’s even more uncommon when that restaurant happens to be a political landmark. But on Sept. 9, the city’s oldest eatery, Frank Fat’s, will be looking back on seven decades as the toast of the state  political world.

A short walk from the Capitol, Fat’s established itself from the beginning in 1939 as a place where politicians could meet with colleagues and discuss business, as well as enjoy a bite to eat and have a nice conversation. Frank Fat was known for a simple mantra: “You give people good food, a nice place to eat it in and make them happy. Pretty simple, really.”

Many associate Fat’s with its delectable dishes that include a killer banana-cream pie. But  some may know that Fat’s was the California equivalent to French coffee-houses during the revolution.

Fat’s is known for more than just its dishes and history.

The restaurant often was the site of political meetings that, according to some, sometimes accomplished more than those in the Capitol. The most notable of these deals was the “Napkin Deal” of 1987, written on the back of a napkin by the participants, that defined a multimillion-dollar pact between the lawyers, insurers, doctors and business interests over tort reform.  

Original owner Frank Fat came to Sacramento from China in 1919 as a 16 year-old illegal immigrant. Frank then borrowed $2,000 to start up Fat’s.

Wing Fat, Frank’s son and the next owner of Fat’s, originally was a dishwasher at the restaurant and by the 1960s, he was manager. “Both Frank and Wing built up the business,” said Jerry Fat, chief financial officer of Fat’s. “Their personalities helped build relationships and friendships with all different members of the Capitol.”

No history of Frank Fat’s would be complete without an account of the fateful night of Sept. 10, 1987, which has a special significance for the restaurant. On that night, then- state Sen. Bill Lockyer and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown helped negotiate an overhaul of the state’s civil liability laws.

As the story goes, they and representatives of groups such as the trial attorneys, doctors, manufacturers, insurers, and business and commercial interests hammered out an agreement over plates of chicken wings and pea pods. The goal was to resolve the battle over tort reform, in which the warring parties had spent millions of dollars over decades.

After intense negotiations by both sides, Lockyer took a napkin and wrote the deals made by the group on it with a sharpie. On top he wrote “DMZ” which stood for demilitarized zone, and later made copies of the napkin; one is displayed in Frank Fat’s to this day.
The legislation made by this and other deals made at the tables of Frank Fat’s have helped make the restaurant into a political landmark.

During its hey-day it was known as the states’ “Third House,” where deals were forged on the tables of Fat’s by politicians and lobbyists alike. Its diners have included governors, U. S. senators and representatives along with lobbyists, state stakeholders and legislators from both sides of the aisle.

Some of its most famous regulars included Jesse Unruh, Willie Brown, Jerry Brown, Ken Maddy and many others.  

However since the Fair Political Practices act, “Fat’s doesn’t see the same kind of clientele from the Capitol that it used to,” Jerry Brown said. “Back then, they (politicians) were friendlier with each other here, they communicated better,” he noted. “In the old days, they got stuff done at Fat’s.”

To celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary, Frank Fat’s will be hosting a charity event for the Sacramento Crisis Nurseries, which works to prevent parental stress which may result in harm or injuries to children under the age of 6.

“Seventy years in the business is a testament to the kind of food and service we provide,” Jerry remarked. “We take pride in the fact that we have a long history of exceptional service. We treat everyone the same, regardless of who they are, and I think that’s just one of the things that keeps people coming back.”

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